Archive for the ‘Torah’ category

Abraham and Isaac are Us – Moriah is Jerusalem

September 27, 2014

In the past, I have been asked, “Can’t we read some other section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah? The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is so difficult to listen to. Indeed it is frightening.” While I have always appreciated these concerns, I have never acceded to these requests.

Why? Perhaps partly because, having been raised as a Reform Jew, for all of my childhood and much of my life this was the only Torah text to be found in our High Holy Day prayer book for Rosh Hashanah. You must remember that in those days, Reform Jews never considered the possibility of observing a second day of Rosh Hashanah and therefore needing a second Torah portion. In fact, the rabbis who framed the old UNION PRAYER BOOK intentionally chose this text in spite of the fact that in traditional synagogues it is read on the second day and not the first. Why? Because they had ideological problems with the traditional text for the first day. While it does include the birth of Isaac, it also includes Abraham and Sarah driving Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, out of their camp to live or die in the wilderness. That, they found that to be morally questionable.

30 years ago, when GATES OF REPENTANCE was published, it did include a second Rosh Hashanah Morning service, for those who choose to observe a second day. However, for that service, they still did not include the other traditional Torah portion but rather they inserted the story of Creation. Still I stuck with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, partly because of nostalgia and partly because this is a story about Jews while the Creation story is about a time before there were Jews. Now, in this new prayer book,     MISHKAN HANFESH, they have chosen to include, not only today’s Torah text and the story of Creation, but also the other traditional Torah reading and a fourth reading as well.

But still, I am deeply tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. That bond exists not just because of nostalgia, nor even just because it is a story of the early days of our people, but also because of the presence in it of Mt. Moriah. For Mt. Moriah would later be called Mt. Zion, and upon that mountain would be built the sacred city of Jerusalem. This story is so compelling because, from the earliest times of our people’s existence – 4,000 year ago – it binds the generations of Jews – Abraham and Isaac and all the generations to follow – to the land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Jerusalem.

Granted, it is not an easy story. It is one fraught with danger and heartache, sacrifice and tears. But that is part of the price that we Jews have had to pay throughout the ages for the privilege of having a land of our own. Jews for 4,000 years have tended to agree that it is a price well worth paying.

Throughout the ages, we have called it the Promised Land, but more accurately we should have called it the Land of the Covenant. For, from the very beginning of the Jewish people – when Abraham and God first struck a deal which would establish forever the unique relationship between our people and God, a central part of that deal, that covenant, that brit, was that there would be this land which God would give us as homeland for all time.

So today we read from the Torah some of our earliest history and what do we see? Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; standing and praying on the site of the very heart of Jerusalem; the site where both Temples would eventually stand.

As Abraham and Isaac stood on Mt. Moriah, there were others who inhabited that land as well; people such as the Amorites, Hittites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. But all those people are gone. They have disappeared from the face of history and not a trace of them remains, other than some sporadic archaeological finds. But we Jews, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, remain. We still exist and throughout the centuries, whether living on that land or in exile, the bonds between us and that land have remained unbroken.

2,700 years ago, when our people were dragged into exile in Babylonia, the Psalmist sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” For 2,000 years, while in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in our worship we prayed daily for our return to Israel. 69 years ago, on April 20, 1945, on the first Shabbat after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a British radio reporter shared with the world his recording of the surviving Jews singing “Hatikvah” – “The Hope”; the song that would become the national anthem of the State of Israel. Throughout our history, whether we were living on the land or off of it, we never forgot Jerusalem; the cords that bound us to the land of Israel may have been stretched but never broken. In the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet and philosophy, Yehuda HaLevi, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

What I speak of is a sort of mystical magnetism, yet I know that there are those among us who do not sense it. When considering vacation destinations, Israel may not even make the list and that is a shame. It is a shame because for most Jews – indeed, for most Christians – but especially for most Jews, once they have spent any time in Israel, they understand from whence I speak. They feel the magnetism. They become connected – in spiritual ways connected – to the land and its people. They come to understand that the Jewish people and the land of Israel are inseparable no matter where we live.

I share all this with you because this past summer has been a very difficult and trying time for Israel and for all of us who love Israel. Indeed, it has been a trying time for all Jews, whether we love Israel or not. While Israelis has suffered under the constant barrage of Hamas missiles, needing to flee with very little advanced notice into their bomb shelters, we all have suffered as we have witnessed, and perhaps experienced, the dramatic rise in the levels of antisemitism throughout the world as a direct result of Israel’s war with Hamas. But even as I say that, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it truly as a result of the war, or is there something else at work here?”

For years there have been those who have claimed that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being antisemitic. Of course, that is, at the least, a horrible overstatement. That someone criticizes Israel in no way automatically means that they hate Jews. We Americans, of all people, should understand that, for we are constantly criticizing our own government but that does not mean that we do so out of hatred. But perhaps what those who equate being anti-Israel with being antisemitic are trying to say, though saying it poorly, is that while there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel, just as there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any nation, there are still those individuals and groups who use their socially acceptable criticism of Israel in order to mask their socially unacceptable attitudes of antisemitism. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, expressed this eloquently when he wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is antisemitc, and not saying so is dishonest.”

What we have been witnessing is a dark combination of the Thomas Friedman ‘anti-Israel / antisemitism’ formula side-by-side with a toxic, blatant, endemic antisemitism which has taken advantage of the war to come out of the shadows and reveal itself in the light of day.

When respected bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution to divest from Israel, even in a limited fashion, and didn’t even consider framing a resolution in which they would take a stand against Hamas firing thousands of rockets directed at civilian targets in Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When the Metropolitan Opera insists upon producing and performing a work which seeks to justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered a wheel chair bound American Jew who simply was on vacation with his wife, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When during the war, the news media gave extensive coverage to the suffering of the citizens of Gaza but gave only meager coverage to the extent of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or to the multiple efforts made by the Israelis to forewarn Gaza civilians of imminent attacks so that they could get out of harm’s way, or to the various ways in which Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as human shields so as to protect their own fighters while creating a humanitarian crisis which they would then use as propaganda against Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke.

Yet we have witnessed the other type of antisemitism as well, and in frightening ways. When those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war besieged a synagogue in Paris, filled with Jews who had gathered for no other reason but to observe Shabbat, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in Berlin those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war started chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone,” that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in New York those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war took their demonstration to the streets of the Diamond District, knowing that most of the jewelry exchanges located there are Jewishly owned and operated, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When someone in our own community plastered a gruesome anti-Israel poster on every utility pole surrounding our own synagogue, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly.

What can we learn from all of this? We learn that there is a certain irony in the fact that while some or many of us may have, for whatever reasons, lost our sense of intimate connection with the land and the State of Israel, it is our enemies who remember and continue to recognize it. Of course, they do not see its positive values but rather see it as fuel for their hatred of us. We, on the other hand need to embrace it and trust it. As throughout our history, our connection to Israel has been an integral component of Jewish identity and of our unique relationship with God, it remains so today. As we believe, and I hope we believe, that our relationship with God has produced for our people an elevated values system; one which lifts up justice and living the ethical life, then we have to trust that it is that very same value system that serves as the foundation of Israeli society – that Israel truly is a Jewish state and not just because it is populated by Jews.

We need to embrace that perspective, for once we do so, we can begin to prepare ourselves for how to respond to Israel’s detractors. We can begin to formulate our answer to the question of whether or not in the recent war, and in recent history, Israel has been placed in the role of the victim or the villain.

In our search for that answer let me leave you with some thought-starting questions:

Which party in the recent conflict has been deeply invested in peace and historically and consistently committed to finding a two-state solution, and which party has consistently and adamantly refused to sit at a negotiating table?

If Israel is not interested in making peace with its neighbors then how do you explain its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, its 2000 offer to the Palestinians of 97% of the disputed territories, and its 2005 total withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza?

Which party in the recent conflict used its rockets to protect its children and which party used its children to protect its rockets?

Which party in the recent conflict invested billions of dollars in constructing bomb shelters to protect its people and which party invested billions of dollars in constructing terror tunnels?

Which party in the recent conflict made extensive efforts to forewarn civilians on the other side of coming attacks?

Which nation in the Middle East does the most to protect religious freedom, the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, and the rights of all minority groups within its borders?

If you honestly seek the answers to these and similar questions you will have begun the search to determine who indeed is the victim and who the villain. Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that Israel truly is a Jewish state, in values as well as in name; that it seeks peace, not war, with its neighbors and prays for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side as friends rather than as enemies.

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Sacrificial Offerings

September 17, 2013

As those of you who have shared Rosh Hashanah with us over the years know, every Rosh Hashanah morning I dedicate my sermon to a theme born of this morning’s Torah portion – the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac.  Over the years, I have drawn many lessons from various aspects of this text.  I have found meaningful messages in the roles of Abraham and Isaac, the roles of the servants who accompanied them, whom are tradition identifies as Ishmael and Eliezer; I even have found meaningful messages in the roles of the donkey and the mountain.  My Akeda sermons have been finessed and nuanced in numerous ways.  However, this morning I want to do something just a little different; a little different yet something old and classical.

I want to turn to one of the primary interpretations of this Torah text, as found in our tradition.  For the ancient rabbis were quick to see this strange story of Abraham and Isaac on top of Mount Moriah as being first and foremost a story about sacrifice.  That is what I want to talk about this morning – sacrifice.

There are those who say that this account was included in the Torah as a polemic against human sacrifice; a practice that was very common among many Near Eastern religions in Abraham’s day, and throughout the biblical period.  In fact, just beyond the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is Gei-Hinnom – the Valley of Hinnom.  As testified to by such great prophets as Jeremiah and Isaiah, it was in that place that Canaanite idol worshipers offered up their children to Moloch, the god of fire.  For the ancient Israelites, it was a place of fear because of the horrors that took place there.  It is even said that one of the ways Israelite parents would discipline their children was by telling them, “If you’re not good, I’m going to send you to Gei-Hinnom!”  It is spoken of in the Talmud as Gehenna, and there it is considered a frightening place of fire and death.  Indeed, Christ­ianity would draw heavily upon these images of Gehenna as it fashioned its own concept of Hell.

Therefore according  to some interpreters, this morning’s Torah text is meant to serve as a powerful Jewish rejection of those sacrificial practices.  For there is Abraham, willing to serve his God by physically sacrificing his child just as so many around him actually did sacrifice their children in the service of their gods.  Yet, at the very last moment, as the knife is about to fall, God’s angel shouts out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy nor do the least thing to him!” in a crystal clear statement that God is not interested in human sacrifice; that such an act is abhorrent to God.  For God, animal sacrifice is quite sufficient as Abraham finds a ram to offer in place of his son.

That is one interpretation of this story.

Yet for many of the ancient rabbis, this text was so much more than a proof text as to why Jews don’t prac­tice human sacrifice.  For understanding, they ask an all important question:  If God did not want human sacrifice, why did God ask it of Abraham in the first place?  God simply could have said to Abraham:  “I forbid you and those who follow after you from sacrificing children.  It is abhorrent to me, even worse than bacon!”  For these rabbis, there had to be more to the story than just a rejection of a religious practice which was common among Abraham’s neighbors.

For these rabbis, the heart of the story rests squarely on God’s request and Abraham’s response.  God asked of Abraham to surrender that which was most precious to him – “Take your son, your only child, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on a mountain that I will show you” – and Abraham was willing to do it without question or doubt because he believed in God so completely that even in this he would obey.  For these rabbis, this text challenges us, asking, “Look what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in the service of God.  What are we willing to sacrifice – not only to God, but also generally in the name of those ideas, or principles, or causes, in which we claim to believe and to which we claim to be committed?  Indeed, are we willing to give to anything until it hurts?  Even more simply, are we willing to give as well as to take, and if so, are we willing to give as much as we take, or even more?

These questions remain as pertinent today as they did when the ancient rabbis first posed them; perhaps even more so.  We are Jews who live in a time and a place of extreme blessings, and not just as Jews but as Americans.  No matter how much we complain about the state of the economy and taxes and the cost of gas at the pump, our lives are far more comfortable than the vast majority of people on our planet.  They are also far more comfortable than most of those of the generations that came before us.  I think of my own parents, of blessed memory.  It was only toward the end of their lives that they were able to enjoy such luxuries as an air conditioned home or a microwave.  Going out to a restaurant was a real treat for them while admittedly, I eat more meals in restaurants than I do at home.  For them, a vacation was going camping in the woods while for me, a vacation usually involves getting on an airplane.  I can only speculate as to how amazed they would be if they were around today to witness the marvels of dishwashers and K cups and computers and printers and cell phones and I Pads and cable or satellite tv – My father loved to watch tv.

We are a people whose pantries are filled, whose refrigerators and freezers are filled, whose closets are filled, whose garages are filled, whose lives are filled with a bounty of plenty.  Yet when it comes down to it, how much of that plenty are we willing to give up in support of those causes which we claim to be important to us?  How much are we willing to sacrifice?  Abraham was willing to give up his beloved – his only – son because God was important to him.  What are we, who have so much, willing to give up be­cause anything is so important to us?

In this day and age, that is an uncomfortable question for many.  We have so much, but we have grown so accustomed to having so much that we resist letting any of it go.  We do not wish to impair our comfort or even take the risk of impairing it.  While we are willing to give, how many among us are willing to give until it hurts?  How many are willing to give of their bounty to such an extent that it will actually alter, even if just a little, their lifestyle?  How many of us are willing to make such a sacrifice that as a result we would need to deny ourselves one less meal in a restaurant each week or each month, or we would need to hold on to that car for another year or so, or take one less vacation every few years, or find ourselves needing to wear some of last year’s fashions this year?

Now do not think that this whole question of sacrifice is about surrendering material possessions.  Of course that can be part of it but it is far from the whole.  In fact, many find that giving materially is far easier and far less demanding than giving in other ways.

I remember one year when Shira was in college and it was time for the students to move out of their summer apartments and into their winter ones.  Now in Madison, Wisconsin, where Shira went to school, every student moved out on the same day and every student moved in on the next.  So I went up to Madison to help her move.  It was chaos and it was exhausting.  On the second day, as we were moving Shira into her winter quarters, I took a break outside of her apartment building.  Soon I was joined by a set of parents of another student who was moving in as well.  In shared agony, we struck up a conversation in which that student’s father commented, “These two moving days make paying tuition seem relatively painless!”  And he was right!  For while giving away or spending money may be momentarily painful, chances are good that we will be earning more money and the pain will quickly fade.

Giving time.  That’s a whole other story, for our time is not a renewable resource.  When we spend it, it is gone and it is not coming back.  Trust me.  When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder where it all went, and how did it fly by so quickly.  Time is a precious commodity, so it stands to reason that many would prefer to give money than to give time.  But even as our time is precious to us, it is also precious to others.

Our time is most certainly precious to our family.  So many of us claim that our family is the most important thing in our lives.  But is it really?  A good measure is to be found in how much of our time do we devote to them, and how much do we spend in other pursuits.  It is a source of a certain amount of embarrassment to me that when Shira was young, there were too many occasions when she had some special event, and I missed it because I was here at the Temple teaching a class or attending a meeting, or whatever.  What do you think about a dad who lets his neighbor from across the street escort his daughter to a Dad-Daughter Date Night at school?  That dad was me.  However by the time it was Helene’s turn,  I came to recognize how incongruous that was with my values.  I discovered that I could say, “I’m sorry, I cannot attend that meeting because Helene has such-&-such an event” or “I’m sorry but we will not be holding class on this or that date because I need to be with Helene for a program.”

Not only is our time precious to our family but it is precious to others as well.  Worthy organizations with noble goals are always starving for volunteers.  Whether or not people step forward to fill those spots can make all the difference in the success or failure of those organizations, and more importantly, whether or not those noble goals are met.  Just think about our own efforts when it comes to addressing world hunger.  Is there anyone here who would say that they do not give a hoot or a holler about all those people starving across the world?  Of course not.  We all think that it is a shame; a travesty.  We all wish that everyone had enough food to eat.  Yet how many of us are willing to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon in October to walk in the CROP Walk?  The more people who walk, the more money we raise.  The more money we raise, the more lives we save.  It is all a matter of sacrificing a little time in order to make a great difference in the lives of many people.  And yes, pledging some money as well.

We can give of our money.  We can give of our time.  But what about giving of ourselves?  That, perhaps, is the hardest sacrifice of all, save literally giving of our lives.    To give of ourselves means to truly care about something or someone other than ourselves.  It means being willing at times to put them first, before us and our wants and our needs.  It means being willing to step forward, be counted, and even take risks on their behalf.  It means stepping off the sidelines, stop being an observer, and start being a participant in the quest to bring about righteous change in the world.

Walter Friedlieb was Susie Rothbardt’s father, Greg Rothbardt’s grandfather.  Walter was also one of those German Jews who was able to escape Nazi Germany before it was too late.  He knew first hand what it meant to be on the receiving end of prejudice.  I remember so well his telling me with great pride about how he and his Chicago rabbi, David Polish, went down South to participate in a civil rights demonstration, and how, as a result, they wound up in jail.  He could have stayed home in Chicago, reading the newspapers and watching the news, sharing with others his disdain for racial discrimination in conversations over cups of coffee but he chose to act instead of just talk.  He chose to put himself on the line in the cause of racial justice.  He chose to help make change happen rather than just hope for it to happen.  He chose to give of himself, willing to accept the consequences of his sacrifice.  And he did help to bring about a positive change in his world.  How many of us can say of ourselves, we have done the same?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything – and believe you me, Isaac was everything to him – because he believed it was the right thing to do.  To this day, the story of Abraham and Isaac which we read from the Torah just a short while ago, challenges us to ask of ourselves, “What sacrifices would I be willing to make in the name of those people and ideas and values and causes which I hold to be near and dear?  What sacrifices would I be willing to make in order to do my part in making this world a better place for all who live here?”

Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

Family Feud

September 18, 2012

Every year on Rosh Hashanah morning I base my sermon on the text of the Torah portion; the story of the Binding of Isaac.  Every year, I attempt to look at the story from a different angle and draw a different lesson from this remarkable account.

Two years ago, I focused my remarks not on Abraham and Isaac but rather on the “na’arav,” the servants or youths who accompanied them to Mount Moriah.  At that time I pointed out that the rabbis who wrote the commentaries and the Midrash were in general agreement that these two special young people who had the privilege of accompanying Abraham and Isaac were none other than Eliezer – the servant Abraham ultimately would send to acquire a wife for Isaac – and Ishmael – Isaac’s half-brother; Abraham’s older son from Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.

As I did two years ago, I wish to turn our attention to Ishmael, for Ishmael is a unique and very important character in the story of our people, not only then in our early days, but today as well.  For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Abraham through Isaac, the Arab world traces it lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael.  Arabs and Jews, we are family.  We are all the children of Abraham.  While we Jews have followed the path of Isaac, the Arabs have followed the path of Ishmael.

As we all know, in this world there are families and then there are families.  There are families in which their members are bound one to the other by indestructible bonds.  Then there are families in which their members each go their own separate ways, acknowledging their connections, one to the other, but not really feeling those connections in their hearts.  And then there are families in which their members are steeped in bitterness and anger one toward the other because of old wrongs, both real and imagined; families at war with themselves.

Sad to say, our family is just that; a family at war with itself.  Arabs and Jews, we find ourselves caught in the midst of a family feud, the roots of which are thousands of year old.  The roots of which go back all the way to the days of Isaac and Ishmael.

In the very same Torah portion in which we find the text of the Binding of Isaac, we find another account as well; an important text in understanding the roots of our family feud.  According to this text, Sarah saw Ishmael doing something, and it distressed her greatly.  Indeed, she was so distressed that she went straight to Abraham and insisted that he send Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away and do so immediately.  And so he did.

One of the questions the rabbis ask is, “What is it that Sarah saw?”  The Torah text simply states that she saw Ishmael “metzachek,” which in modern Hebrew simply means “playing.”  As you can imagine, it is the meaning of that term, “Metzachek” over which the rabbis have struggled throughout the ensuing years.   We do not have to look very far to get a taste of their debates.  We only have to look to the trans­lation or translations of the Torah most popularly accepted by the English speaking Jewish world; those published by the Jewish Publication Society.  Many synagogues, mine included, provide copies of the Torah translation for the worshipers to refer to while the Torah is being read.  Those translations more often than not are the most recent one published by the Jewish Publication Society.  It is the most recent but it is not the first.  Rather it is the third.  The translation in those books was first published in 1962.  Prior to that, the Jewish Publication Society published two other translations; one in 1884 and the other in 1917.  In the 1884 translation, “metzachek” was translated as “mocking” while in 1917 it was translated as “making sport.”  It was not until 1962 that it was translated as “playing.”

Why is the translation of “metzachek” so important?  Because it is the key to understanding why it was that Sarah insisted that Abraham tear his family apart and create the rift which is the foundation of the family feud which we experience to this day between Arabs and Jews.  The 1884 translation reflected the interpretation that Sarah witnessed Ishmael “mocking” Isaac while the 1917 reflected the interpretation that Ishmael was making fun of Isaac.  While the 1962 translation does use the word “playing” still in the Midrash and commentaries that support the use of that interpretation, there is found the opinion that while Ishmael may have been befriending Isaac through play, he was also using his friendship to exert an undo influence over him.  Whichever way the rabbis fell in the debates over the meaning of that one word, where they all came together was that whatever Sarah saw, in it she saw that Ishmael posed some significant threat to Isaac’s well being, and therefore needed to be expelled from the camp; ousted from the family circle.

Ishmael’s supposed threat, along with Sarah’s & Abraham’s very painful rejection, sowed the seeds for the animosity we experience today between Arabs and Jews.  For 4,000 years we have each looked at the other, with anger and with hatred, as the enemy; as the one who has done us harm in the past and will do us harm in the future.  This has become so ingrained in us that even if we seriously looked back to the roots of this hostility, seeking to understand its genesis, still there are so many years of ill will that it seems near impossible to repair it.  Here in America we look to the Hatfields and the McCoys as a classic example of a family feud, but when compared to the Arabs and the Jews, they were mere novices.

Now reason dictates that we should be able set aside our differences and seek a peaceful resolution to our conflict.  However, reason plays a very small role in what goes on in the Middle East.  Indeed, much of the hatred which exists is pure mindless hatred.  It is hatred based upon generations of hatred.  While we American Jews would like to believe that Israel is more open to seeking reasonable solutions with its neighbors, still there are many in Israel who hate the Arabs as virulently and as blindly as the Arabs hate us.  Literally a month ago, on August 16th, there was a despicable incident in Zion Square in Jerusalem, in which a mob of Jewish teenagers beat a 17 year old Palestinian boy to within an inch of his life while hundreds of Israeli merely looked on, doing nothing to intervene.  While 8 teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 19, have been arrested for this attack, one of them, a 14 year old whose name has been withheld because he is a minor, and who is considered to be the one who delivered the critical blow to the victim, shortly after his arrest, said to reporters, “For my part, he can die; he’s an Arab.”

In addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict, we Jews have always been quick to point an accusing finger at all those Arab imams who week after week preach bloody hatred of Jews from their pulpits, and we have been completely justified in doing so.  However, in the aftermath of the beating of this Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, our attention has been turned in another direction as well.  It has been turned toward rabbis who likewise preach hate.  Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of Reform Judaism’s Israel Religious Action Center, has challenged the Israeli government to take criminal action against some 50 state-employed Israeli rabbis, not the least of whom is none other than Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of S’fat (Safed), who regularly preach anti-Arab hatred from their pulpits, in blatant disregard for Israeli law which clearly states that racist incitement is a criminal offense.  But what else can you call it when these rabbis deliver messages such as “don’t rent or sell apartments to Arabs” or “All Arabs have a violent nature”?  So blind hatred is not exclusively the purview of the Arabs.  The Jews have enough of it to go around as well.

All that being said, in the Jewish world, and in Israel in particular, we do hear more voices of moderation.  There is more hand-wringing and soul searching after events such as what happened in Zion Square than when the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.  For there are those who recognize that this cycle of violence, this cycle of anger, this cycle of hatred has to be broken.  If only there were more in the Arab world that shared such a recognition and were courageous enough to be outspoken about it.  But even if there are, the anger and the hatred is so deep-seated in the Arab world that to so speak out is to literally put one’s life and the lives of one’s family members at risk.

So more often than not, Israel finds itself with no choice but to act defensively in the face of unmitigated hatred.  Their desire for peace does not, nor should it, require them to commit any act of national suicide.

Such is the situation in which Israel finds itself today when it comes to Iran.  While Israel would prefer peace; would prefer to put an end to this family feud, the political leadership of Iran will have none of it.  For years now, the Ayatollah leadership of Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab have spewed upon the world their messages of antisemitism and hatred of Israel.  Time and again, they have not threatened but promised to wipe Israel off the map; to utterly destroy what they call “the Zionist entity.”  True to a history of deep seated prejudice, you never hear them explain why they feel this way.  They just do.  Hatred of Jews – hatred of Israel – is simply a given in their lives.  When it comes to Israel, they see no alternative but to seek out its destruction, for they are lost in the family feud; caught up in the cycle of hate.

It has been to this end that the Iranian government has avidly pursued the development of nuclear weapons and they have made it abundantly clear that they have one goal in mind; to use those weapons in their quest to wipe Israel off the map.  This goal they have never kept secret.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, just last month a member of the Iranian Parliament announced, “This nuclear weapon is meant to create a balance of terror with Israel, to finish off the Zionist enterprise.”  Echoing those same sentiments, President Ahmadinejad said, “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.”

As we all know, the Iranians are not the first to proclaim as their goal the desire to wipe out the Jews.  There is a laundry list of others who have preceded them: the Crusaders, the Cossacks, the Nazis.  And each of them tried their best to accomplish their goal.  So for us Jews, when there are those who threaten to destroy us, we have good cause to take their threats seriously.  How much the more so should Israel take Iran’s threats seriously, taking into consideration that they are born out of our 4,000 year old family feud!

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Washington, D.C., attending a conference of 120 rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish religious life, sponsored by AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  As you can imagine, the main topic for consideration was the immediate tangible threat which Iran poses to the continued existence of the State of Israel.  That day we heard from many speakers, both from the left and from the right – speakers of note such as William Cristol and Dennis Ross, not to mention Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.  What was remarkable was that despite their varying political orientations, with nuanced differences, they arrived at the same conclusions.  And their bottom line was that unless the Iranian leadership can be convinced to break out of this lockstep mentality of hatred for Israel – unless they can be convinced to break out of the family feud mind set – there will be a war and it will be soon, perhaps even before our November elections.  For no matter what the United States chooses to do, Israel will never and can never permit Iran to take its nuclear development to a point beyond which Israel will no longer be able to take actions to stop them.  The frightening reality is that today in Israel, those who make plans are planning for several scenarios, all of which include the likelihood that no matter which way Israel turns, she will have to endure a significant number of civilian casualties.  For if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will have to conduct a counter-strike.  Yet if Israel doesn’t strike Iran, and Iran is permitted to continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions, the cost in Israeli casualties will be phenomenally higher.  As the cycle of violence continues, both sides may find themselves drawing blood and bleeding as the result of a 4,000 year old family feud.

As hopeless as the whole matter seems, our meeting closed with an excellent presentation and a ray of hope brought to us by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic.  Wieseltier reminded us of a statement once made by David Ben Gurion.  Back in the 30’s, when Ben Gurion was asked what the Jewish community in Palestine was going to do about the British White Paper, which eliminated Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when European Jews desperately needed to flee from the Nazis, Ben Gurion responded: “We will fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler, and we will fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper.”  What he was saying was that we Jews do not have the luxury to face one issue at a time.  We have to face and juggle them all.  In other words, as long as this family feud presents us with fundamental threats to our continued existence, we must confront those threats.  However, even as we confront those threats – militarily, if necessary – we still must commit ourselves to make every effort to bring to an end this family feud and break through the walls of hatred, on both sides, which have been erected over 4 millennia.

May God help us find a way to transform age old anger into peace.

Counting Jews

May 30, 2012

This past Shabbat, we began the reading of another book of the Torah.  In Hebrew that book is called BAMIDBAR, which means “In the Wilderness” but in English it has another name – NUMBERS.

Why the difference between the Hebrew and the English names?  It is a matter of culture.

In the ancient culture of the Jewish people, books, and indeed weekly Torah portions were named after the first significant uncommon word in the text.  Tonight’s text begins with the statement “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe bamidbar Sinai” – “Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”  While, of course, the words “Adonai” and “Moshe” are unquestionably more significant than “bamidbar,” still since so many sentences in the Torah begin with the phrase “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe” we skip it and go to the next significant word.  Ergo “Bamidbar.”

The English title of Torah books follows the Greek tradition of giving them names which are more reflective of their content and theme.  Indeed, with the exception of the book of NUMBERS, the more familiar names of the other books of the Torah are actually their Greek names – GENESIS, EXODUS, etc.

So why is the book of NUMBERS called the book of NUMBERS?  Because it begins with a taking of a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness.  This census is taken in the second year of their sojourn in the wilderness and it is taken tribe by tribe, and included all males twenty years of age and older.  According to the text, the total count was 603,550.

This is not the first time in our history that Jews were counted.  There is an earlier census in the book of EXODUS which comes up with an identical number.  Then, of course, we see in the very beginning of the book of EXODUS that the number of Jews accompanying Jacob into Egypt were 70.

It would appear that counting Jews is a longstanding practice among out people; one which we still seriously engage in today.  It remains very important for us to know the numbers: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?  6 million.  How many Jews live in Israel? – 5,931,000.  How many Jews live in the United States? – 6,588,065.  How many Jews live in the Quad Cities? – approximately 800.  How many Jews belong to Temple Emanuel? – Approximately 155 households.  How many Jews attend our religious school? – 63.  How many Jews attend Shabbat services – sadly usually under 20.  There is no question but that in Jewish life we are always playing the numbers game.

But perhaps for all these millennia, we’ve had it all wrong.  Perhaps rather than focusing our attention on counting Jews we ought to be focusing it on whether or not our Jews count.

This, my friends, is both a private concern and a community concern.

Privately, each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, “As a Jew, how much do I count?  Have I made my life into a Jewish presence?  Have I consciously applied my Jewish values in the daily conduct of my life?  As a Jew, have I stood up and been counted, when it really counts?  When my days on earth are over and I am physically gone, will my presence on this planet have counted for any good?”  It is simply not enough for us to be counted among the Jews.  If our lives, as Jews, are to have any purpose whatsoever, then we need to be counted on as Jews.  We need to be there, living our lives as lives of mitzvot, both the ethical mitzvot and the ritual mitzvot.  We cannot just talk about Torah.  If we are to count as Jews, we need to live Torah.

Just as we need to make sure that we count as individual Jews, we also need to insure that our Jewish community also counts, and counts as a Jewish community.  Just as we as individuals need to be there, our Jewish community needs to be there.  As a community, we need to be up front and visible, presenting to the world around us a model of what it means for a community to operate according to Jewish values.  We need to make of our community, a community which is proud of its Judaism; not just privately or secretly proud but publicly proud.  As a Jewish community, we have nothing to be ashamed of.  Quite the contrary!  We should wear the badge of our Jewish identity with pride.

Just as we, as individuals, must have our every action influenced by our Jewish values, so should we as a community have our every action influenced by those values.  Our community should be driven by those values.  We should not wait for others in the general community to signal for us what is the right thing to do.  Our Jewish tradition informs us as to what is the right thing, and as a community we should act upon that information, even if it means that sometimes we stand and act alone.  By conducting our Jewish communal life in this way, that is how we make our Jewish community count for something; count for something good and something truly Jewish.

When Jews come to the synagogue to observe Shabbat, by our very presence in the sanctuary on Shabbat, we have not only been counted in our minyan, but more importantly, we have made ourselves count as Jews.  We have made ourselves count as Jews because our very presence raises up the sanctity of Shabbat; this day declared holy by God from the very first week of Creation.  We have made ourselves count as Jews by actively affirming our intimate connections with the Jewish people, our Jewish heritage, and our special Jewish relationship with God.  Accomplishing all of that – taking such actions as to help us to better count as a Jew – is far more important and far more meaningful than merely being counted as a Jew; being considered Jew number 13 of 21 who happen to have attended the Shabbat service this week; than being Jew number 35 on the Temple membership roster.

And just as our presence in the synagogue on Shabbat is a demonstration of how we can count as Jews, more that merely be counted, so is our presence at such Jewish values activities as adult education and Tikkun Olam activities also demonstrations of how we can count as Jews.  For when, for example, in the Fall, the members of my congregation walk in the CROP Walk Against World Hunger, while the numbers of our congregants who walk are impressive, still it is not so much the numbers who walk but rather that all of us who are walking, are walking for a cause; are walking for a cause very much in consonance the teachings and values of our faith.  In so walking, we are demonstrating those Jewish values in action.  In other words, in that moment, as Jews, we count.

My prayer for all of us is that as we continue to travel the course of our lives, we will forever strive to live Jewish lives that count.

Standing at Sinai Today

May 19, 2012

This coming week, my congregation will join with our neighboring synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, to celebrate the festival of Shavuot through the ritual of Confirmation for four very special young ladies: Gabrielle Gellerman, Michelle Larsen, Shai Mally, and Rachel Whiskeyman.

Confirmation is a life cycle ceremony which came “late to the game.”  It was the creation of Reform Judaism, with the original intention being that it would replace Bar Mitzvah.  The desire of those early Reform Jewish leaders was to move Jewish education beyond the age of 13, for at that time Bar Mitzvah marked the end of Jewish education for most Jewish children.  By placing Confirmation at the conclusion of 10th grade, they added three years to our children’s religious school studies.  These are a very important three years when you consider that these three years mark a period of significant growth in a child’s intellectual and emotional development.  It is during these three years that our children become far more capable of maturely understanding the fine nuances and complexities of Jewish beliefs.  They have finally reached a stage in their lives when it is no longer necessary for Jewish educators to “dumb down” and simplify the teachings of our faith so that they can understand and appreciate them.

The maturity of the students by the age of Confirmation was a very important consideration in framing this ceremony.  It was precisely because of their increased maturity that our early leaders decided to place the Con­firmation service on the festival of Shavuot, the third of our three major Pilgrimage Festivals, when in ancient days, all Jews made pilgrimage to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.  They chose Shavuot because of what Shavuot means to Jewish life.  It is nothing less than the festival of “Matan Torah,” of “the Giving of the Torah.”  It is the festival when we celebrate our people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah directly from God.

Through their celebration of Shavuot, and particularly through the act of Confirmation, our young people stand at Sinai to receive the Torah.  With somewhere between 10 to 12 years of formal Jewish studies under their belts, these young people, with full intention and a body of knowledge based up their studies and experiences, stand at Sinai and say: “Yes!  I willingly and joyfully accept the responsibilities and the gift of Torah; the gift of living a Jewish life, Jewishly connected to God, the Jewish people, and the world.”

Confirmation is a beautiful thing.  However, it is easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that Confirmation, and the power of the festival of Shavuot, are only intended for our religious school’s graduating 10th graders.  In truth, it is not only for them but it is also for all of us as well.

On Yom Kippur morning, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah, out of the book of DEUTERONOMY: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem, rasheichm shifteichem, zikneichem v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisraeil.  Tapchem, n’sheichem, v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, meichotev eitzecha ad sho’eiv meimecha.  L’avrecha bivrit Adonai Elohecha uv’alato asher Adonai Elohecha koreit imach hayom… V’lo itchem levadchem Anochi koreit et a brit hazot v’et ha’alah hazot.  Ki et asher yeshno po imanu omeid hayom lifnei Adonai Eloheinu, v’eit asher einenu po imanu hayom.” – “You are standing this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every man in Israel, your children, your women, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water – to enter into a covenant with Adonai your God, and into His oath, which Adonai your God makes with you this day… But it is not only with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath.  For with those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.”

This is a very important text when it comes to appreciating the Jewish understanding of what transpired at Sinai.  In order to unpack and decode it, we have to understand that the rabbis viewed every single word of the Torah as being sacred and important.  There was no literary fluff.  Nor could the Torah contradict itself.  When it appears to do so, that contradiction needs to be resolved.

So what does this text teach us about that moment when our people stood at Sinai?

The first thing that the rabbis point out is that the text reads “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing this day, kulchem, all of you.”  Why, they asked, does the Torah include the word “kulchem – all of you”?  Would it not have been enough just to say “You are standing this day”?  What meaning does the word “kulchem – all of you” add to the text.  The answer that the rabbis give is that it means “all Jews”; not just the Jews alive at that time but also all the Jews throughout the generations, those of the past and those yet to be born.  Every Jew, for all time, stood at Sinai.

But if that is the case, then later on, there seems to be a contradiction in the text, for the Torah continues to read, “those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.”  If there are Jews who are “not here with us today,” then how can all Jews be there?  The rabbis resolved this apparent contradiction by stating that the Jews who were not there, were just not there physically.  However, they were there spiritually.  All Jews throughout the generations were there, standing at Sinai, spiritually, if not our bodies then at least our souls.

We – each and every one of us – were present for Matan Torah, for the Giving of the Torah.  I was there.  You were there.  Every single Jew in our congregation who is not with us tonight to observe Shabbat was there.  Every single Jew in the Quad Cities.  Every single Jew in the world.  We all stood at the foot of Sinai.  We all heard God’s voice recite the words of the Ten Commandments; the same words which our Confirmands will read out of the Torah scroll during their special service.  And even more important than having heard, we also accepted.

While Shavuot is the festival of Matan Torah – the Giving of the Torah – there is yet another side to that equation.  It is Kaballat Torah – The receiving, and accepting, of the Torah.  A gift can only be given if it is also accepted.  Otherwise it is not a gift.  As important as it was that God gave us the Torah, it was even more important that we accepted it.

When we talk about standing at Sinai, we are talking even more about our acceptance than about God’s giving.  It is nice that God wanted to give us a gift.  It was very generous of God.  But it is essential that we accepted that gift, and with it we accepted all the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with that gift.

Shavuot is a time when we are supposed to remember all the commitments that we made when all those years ago, we stood, as disembodied souls, united with all the souls of all the Jews for all time, at the foot of Mount Sinai.  It is a time when not just our children but also we, ourselves, are expected to confirm our devotion to the fulfillment of those commitments.  On Shavuot, we stand with all Jews, and we stand before God, and we say: “Yes!  I am a Jew, and I will live my life as a Jew, in thought and in deed, in beliefs and in values.”

Yet we also must remember that the values of Shavuot were never intended to be bottled up into one holiday celebration.  The holiday is to reinforce for us a lifelong, day-to-day commitment.  Just as our commitment to freedom should not be limited to the observance of Passover, and our commitment to repentance and atonement should not be limited to the observance of Yom Kippur, so our commitment to living our lives guided by the principles of Torah should not be limited to our observance of Shavuot.  Rather, from Shavuot, we should be renewing our sense of how beautiful and inspiring it was to stand at the foot of Sinai, in the presence of God, and to hear God’s commanding voice, and to be filled with that strong sense of this is how I wish to lead my life.  If we can accomplish that, then perhaps – just perhaps – we can find ourselves every day – every morning we wake up – filled with wonder of standing at Sinai.

Snow What?

January 27, 2012

Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities.  Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening.  It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services.  However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them.  After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.

One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them.  When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.

That service was planned as a special one for our congregation.  Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering.  On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.

No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car.  While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority.  Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered.  At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.

Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year.  One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here.  They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers.  They find our melodies enchanting.  The text of our services really touches them.  They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our obser­vance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat.  And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them.  For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mys­tical, experience.

This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews.  They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people.  Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience.  I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.  The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so.  In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews.  Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”

I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise.  According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we Amer­ican Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious oppor­tunities.  So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%.  According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”

One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American syna­gogues face on an ongoing basis.  Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn?  Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues.  Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors.  Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools.  Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that.  But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.

There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait.  Maybe it is.  But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion.  So what are we going to do about it?  Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.